It's that time of year again, when you go out on a huge shopping spree buying all kinds of cool robot gifts for your family, friends, and Secret Santa coworkers. Or maybe you just go out and get something robotic for, you know, yourself. Because you sure deserve an awesome US $12,000 advanced humanoid robot, right? If, however, that's a bit above your budget (it certainly is way above ours!), we have lots of other options for you. And note that we're trying to bring you different stuff (slightly different, at least) than what we featured on our 2012 Robot Gift Guide. So check out our list, and if you think we missed something good, let everyone know in the comments.
On to the gifts!
Anki Drive has the first spot on our list (which is in no particular order) because it's cool, it's fun, you can appreciate it whether or not you really care about robots, and at $200, it's not crazy expensive (as far as robots go). Anki consists of a racetrack mat plus two little robot cars that use your iOS device for brains. Each car can localize on the mat itself, meaning that it drives autonomously, and your input comes in the form of high-level direction and telling it to use various weapons and defensive abilities. Gameplay is supposed to get more strategic and immersive as you get farther into the game, although our hope is that Anki's tech will show up in a wider diversity of products over time. For now, though, you can find it in Apple stores without too much trouble.
Roombas always make good gifts for people who never knew that they were missing a robot in their lives, and the Roomba 880 is the newest, latest, and best. A redesigned cleaning system makes the 880 require a lot less maintenance, even as a more powerful vacuum picks up dirt much more effectively. We also like the slick new look, and in our testing, we feel like it's one of the quietest Roombas yet. It may not be ready to replace an upright vacuum, but it definitely means that you (or whoever you get it for) will have to vacuum a whole lot less.
Robots don't have to be crazy expensive (even though most of them are). Hexbugs are totally cheap, but they're also totally robots, with sensors to detect what's going on in their environment along with the capacity to react to it by changing their behaviors. There are plenty of different ones to choose from (some autonomous and some controllable), with a variety of colorful designs, and they're pretty much all affordable.
Lego Mindstorms EV3
The Mindstorms EV3 kit combines the approachability of Lego with the sophistication of a robotics kit that you can do all sorts of things with. Three servos, a color sensor, an IR sensor, and a touch sensor are paired with USB and WiFi connectivity, all backed by an ARM processor and command and control directly on the robot. Because it's Lego, there's a gigantic community to help you out if you ever get stuck, or help you find inspiration if you're looking for the next thing to build.
AR Drone 2.0 Power Edition
While it's fundamentally the same robot, the "Power Edition" of the AR Drone gives us an excuse to include it in our gift guide again this year, because for the money, this is just about the most fun robot you can possibly buy. It's a cinch to fly straight out of the box, and while it doesn't have much in the way of autonomy built in, it will handle the tricky parts (take off, landing, and stable hovering) for you. Best of all, enclosed props make it safe to use in people and even indoors, although we wouldn't recommend try to get too fancy around anything fragile or expensive.
The newest version of Orbotix' Sphero is even faster and even more capable than the original. It may look mostly the same, but inside there's new hardware that makes it twice as hard to drive around than the first Sphero, with a top speed of two meters per second, indoors and outdoors and over water (it floats!). Besides being a robotic ball that you can drive around with your phone, Sphero also comes with all kinds of apps that should keep things interesting, and there are a variety of programming interfaces when you're ready to take things to the next level.
Neato Signature Edition
As much as we like Roombas, the Neato XV Signature has a laser turret on it, and robots with lasers are kinda the best thing ever. The Neato uses this laser turret to map out all of the rooms that it cleans, enabling it to clean everything in just one pass, making it faster and more efficient than a Roomba (although, for the record, whether it actually cleans better is debatable). The Neato is a good idea for someone who might like a Roomba, but might also appreciate the technology inherent in the Neato. The Signature Edition, by the way, features a fancy new color scheme that makes it look significantly more like a ninja.
Romo is a smartphone dock on tank treads, but as soon as you plug your phone into it, it turns into all kinds of other things. It has a customizable personality that you can train to recognize you, or you can let it wander around on its own and get into trouble. By leveraging all of the connectivity and brain power in your smartphone (even the old smartphone that you don't use anymore), you can also use Romo as a full-fledged tiny little telepresence platform. For the best performance, you'll want to give Romo an iPhone 4S or better, but it'll be happy even with just a fourth-gen iPod Touch.
3D Robotics Iris
3D Robotics makes serious quadrotors, but you don't have to have a serious amount of experience to use one of them, thanks to a sophisticated autopilot system that does all of the actual flying for you (if you want it to). Using an included wireless ground station and Android tablet adapter, you can give the 3D Robotics Iris commands to take off, fly a series of waypoints, and then come right back to you and land. Mount a GoPro on the front (which is that the Iris is built for), and you've got a remote camera platform that's ready to go right out of the box.
We had Aldebaran Robotics' Nao on our list last year, and this year we're featuring DarwIn-OP, the impressive little humanoid robot designed by ROBOTIS and Virginia Tech. Darwin is most definitely research-grade, which is just another way of saying that it's a-lot-of-fun-grade, as long as you can afford it. The robot has many of the same capabilities as Nao does, including 6 DOF legs, 3 DOF arms, a 2 DOF neck, cameras, mics, sensors, LEDs, and some awfully cute eyes.
Sony AIBO ERS-7
Our last gift is something that's going to be very, very difficult to find. It's likely also going to be very, very expensive if you do manage to find one, but totally worth it. It's the final generation of AIBO, Sony's robot dog: the ERS-7 (or ERS-7M2 or 7M3). The AIBO is, arguably, still one of the most sophisticated consumer robots that you can buy, even though the very last ERS-7 was released way back in 2005. It can walk, chase objects, recognize people, follow voice commands, charge itself, and even fetch your email and read it to you. It knows over 1,000 English words, and a sophisticated artificial intelligence along with arrays of LEDs in AIBO's face and body let it express emotion. Brand new in 2005, you could buy an AIBO for $1,600, but the price has only gone up. The best deal you can hope for is to find a used one online from someone who has no idea what it is. And even if you find one in less than stellar shape, AIBOs remain popular enough that you can send it off to an AIBO hospital for refurbishment. Our advice is to try Craigslist or eBay, and keep your fingers crossed.
And if you still need some more tech gift ideas, check out IEEE Spectrum's annual Gift Guide.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.